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Victor “Vicky” Weisz: A permanent sense of sorrow

“He really wanted to use the cartoon to change the world, to try to engineer opinions.”

On 22 February 1966, the political cartoonist Victor “Vicky” Weisz took an overdose of sleeping pills and died at his flat in north London. He was 52. The previous day, he had filed a portrait of Denis Healey, a gracefully limned arrangement of simple, black lines and smudged eyebrows, which was used on the cover of that week’s New Statesman– the same issue that would carry his obituary.

Writing hastily to deadline, the then editor of the NS, Paul Johnson, praised Vicky’s generosity, wit and moral judgement. “Vicky loved his subjects,” he wrote, “even – perhaps above all – those whom he flayed most mercilessly. And they loved him.” A flurry of letters arrived the following week. Some doubted Vicky’s elan. The screenwriter Heinrich Fraenkel wrote of a lifelong weariness: “For those of us who knew Vicky as a young man, even as a boy, he never seemed to have been young at all.”

Weisz was born in Berlin in April 1913 (were he still alive, he’d be celebrating his centenary with the New Statesman). He studied at the Berlin University of the Arts and drew sports and theatre caricatures for the radical journal 12 Uhr Blatt until it was taken over by the Nazis in 1933. His father, Dezso Weisz, was a Jewish-Hungarian goldsmith who committed suicide in 1928.

Fearing the rise of Hitler (whom he had lambasted in the press), Vicky fled and arrived in London in 1935. He freelanced for the Evening Standard, Daily Telegraph and News Chronicle, where he became a staff cartoonist in 1941.

Vicky was assiduous and rarely satisfied with his work. Michael Foot called him “the best cartoonist in the world” yet the man doubted his own talent. He drew Hugh Gaitskell as a fiery, angular knight and John Foster Dulles as a refrigerator; he transformed Harold Macmillan into “Supermac”. Politicians relished seeing themselves depicted by Vicky and offered him notes.

Quick draw: a cartoon showing Vicky caricaturing Harold Macmillan, first published Octovber 1958.

Every Monday, at precisely 12 noon, Vicky would arrive at the NS offices on Great Turnstile to present his latest cartoons. In person, he appeared like one of his drawings: a small, broad-jowled man with a sweeping comb-over. He wore thick, round glasses and dressed in black. “He really wanted to use the cartoon to change the world, to try to engineer opinions,” said the cartoonist Stan Franklin. Norman Mackenzie, writing in the centenary issue of the NS, recalled Vicky having “a delightful sense of entertainment but a permanent sense of sorrow”.

One letter the NS received after his death came from Bishop William Simon, soon to be archbishop of Wales, who had written to Vicky in August 1960 to compliment him on a Macmillan cartoon. He received no reply. Four months later, on 25 December, a parcel appeared on Cathedral Green. It was the original drawing, wrapped in a parcel almost as large as the artist who had sent it, “with Christmas wishes”.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis